Passing the Gavel: Empowering Students to Lead in Higher Education Governance Spaces

Senators Promote Partnerships to Boost Affordability

The global COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the fragile state of higher education across the country. From budgets, tuition dollars, enrollment, and instruction, almost every aspect of higher education has been impacted. In light of these impacts, leaders and governing boards must reimagine how they approach their work.

One of the most urgent issues higher education leaders must grapple with is the exacerbation of basic needs insecurity, as students increasingly experience hunger and housing insecurity, as well as inadequate access to mental health services. A recent report released by The Hope Center indicates that nearly three out of five students experienced basic needs insecurity over the course of the first pandemic year. Community college transfer students, who disproportionately are parents, hold down jobs, and come from low-income backgrounds, are often uniquely impacted.

In 2020, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents set an example by unanimously approving a report outlining ambitious goals to support students’ basic needs. The report establishes goals for addressing student basic needs by June 2025 “by ensuring equitable access to nutritious and sufficient food; safe, secure, and adequate housing (to sleep, study, cook, and shower); healthcare to promote sustained mental and physical well-being; affordable transportation; resources for personal hygiene care; and emergency needs for students with dependents.”

Importantly, the report outlines clear and measurable goals to reduce food and housing insecurity by 50 percent for both undergraduate and graduate students by 2025. The report outlines a range of policy and practice interventions, including recommendations for university leaders, program coordinators, policymakers, and researchers.

Crucially, the effort was spearheaded by students. During each of our tenures as the student regent, we had the unprecedented opportunity to chair the Board of Regents’ Special Committee on Basic Needs, tasked with developing recommendations for the university. Those appointments positioned us to lead the development of UC’s basic needs goals.

While the process of developing the report yielded many lessons, there are two implications for higher education leaders and governing boards that are especially worthy of note:

  1. Governing boards play a powerful role in promoting students’ basic needs security through creating structures (in this case, a special committee) to address the issue.
  2. Empowering students to play formal leading roles in university governance makes a huge difference! It’s important that university governance structures include students and that students are inspired to seek out these roles. That includes those whose time on campus is limited, such as community college transfer students.

Student participation in governance is still an elusive aspect of higher education governance. The American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities states that students’ desire to participate in the governance of an institution should be treated as an “educational experience and for involvement in the affairs” of the institution. At UC, the student regent’s role has a rich history, with the first student regent appointed to the board in 1975. Although student regents can engage in public and closed sessions of the board, vote, and generally operate in the same fashion as regents who aren’t students, they have rarely held formal leadership roles, such as committee chairs.

Having the student regent serve as chair of the Regents Special Committee was key to the successful development of UC’s plan to improve students’ basic needs. This historic appointment sent a powerful message to the university community that students should be at the forefront of the conversation.

Empowering the student regent to lead the committee also created a clear avenue for advocacy groups at the 10 individual campuses, mostly student-led, to have a regent leading the conversation who was familiar with their lived realities. Our unique identities and experiences brought several forms of expertise to the board. Among the three of us, we’d served on state governing boards, developed campus food pantries, and organized Black student groups. We also each study equity in education in our respective research.

Importantly, our work elevating basic needs issues to the governing board was made possible by years of advocacy spanning the 10 UC campuses. For years, the UC has stood as a leader on issues of basic needs insecurity. A coalition of students, staff, faculty, and administrators had formed a systemwide task force that focused on developing best practices amongst committed advocates at the individual campuses.

Our work on the Board of Regents was amplified and elevated by this advocacy. The Board of Regents’ creation of the Special Committee on Basic Needs placed a spotlight and an accountability mechanism for the university to develop a strategy to address longstanding issues. The board leadership at the time, Regent Emeritus George Kieffer and then Regent John Pérez, endorsed the committee’s formation and made the unprecedented decision to appoint the student regent to lead the committee.

Students led the creation of the special committee, oversaw its success, and built an infrastructure that will guide the university’s response to addressing food and housing insecurity for the foreseeable future — a remarkable example of the level of influence and responsibility that student members of university governing boards can hold. It would not have been as fitting for any other regent, who may be disconnected by decades from the student experience, to have chaired the committee. Students on governance boards are situated to lead on many issues facing the university from a unique vantage point. We encourage higher education governing board leaders to recognize students as sources of expertise on a wide range of issues, not limited to basic needs insecurity.

The next five years will be a reckoning for how institutions of higher education address basic needs insecurity, especially as COVID-19 continues to have implications for hunger and houselessness for students across the country. What is clear from the experience at the UC is that students can effectively lead a university through one of the most challenging tasks facing higher education.

While the UC deserves to be celebrated for entrusting students with leading such a consequential effort, we recognize that students are too rarely afforded such opportunities. This is particularly true in regard to community college transfer students, who make up one-third of the UC undergraduate community but are very rarely present in university governance spaces. We challenge higher education institutions to empower students to lead in governance spaces, as the complex issues facing governing boards likely require leadership to be reimagined.


Devon Graves is an assistant professor at California State University, Stanislaus and was the 44th Student Regent for the University of California. Hayley Weddle is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and served as the 45th Student Regent for the University of California. Jamaal Muwwakkil is a linguistics doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara; served as the 46th Student Regent for the University of California; and is a former community college transfer student.

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